"We're getting to the point now," Orioles manager Johnny Oates says, "where a split may not be good enough."
That's when you know the preliminaries are over -- when going 2-2 against the Twins in Minnesota last weekend might not have been good enough.
The real test begins tonight in Toronto. Starting with this one, the Orioles will play 19 straight games against teams in the bunched-up American League East.
When that stretch is over, the club could be in first place -- or it could be in fifth. By that point in mid-August we should at least have a better idea of how the race will shake out.
Will the Orioles be on top when the regular season ends with Toronto playing here on Oct. 3?
I don't think so -- but let's hasten to add something:
This has been the most unpredictable of seasons. No one can predict with any confidence what will happen in the remaining 63 games.
Going into the season, who dreamed the Orioles would be as bad as they were for the first two months?
Who thought they'd turn around and play as well as they have since then?
Who imagined when they were 10 1/2 games back two months ago that they would rise to sniff the rarefied air of first place in July, as they did ever so briefly last week?
Since June 30, Valenzuela has gone 4-0 with an ERA of 0.65. At his peak with L.A. he was never better than that.
Who thought Jamie Moyer, a non-roster player in the spring who had been discarded by the Cubs, Rangers and Cardinals, would win seven of eight decisions, as he has just done?
Who thought Glenn Davis' departure would send the Orioles on a 33-15 tear?
Who thought defending world champion Toronto, rich with talent, would lose 12 of 14 games at midseason?
No, this is not a season that makes a lot of sense.
This is a year when we can expect the unexpected. And if that's the case, maybe the Orioles will win the pennant.
I don't look for that to happen for two reasons.
One, their club, as constituted, is a little too fragile.
You hold your breath with some of their veteran pitchers, including the one who starts in Toronto tonight, Rick Sutcliffe.
You have to wonder about the ace of their staff, Mike Mussina, whose next start keeps getting pushed back, farther and farther.
Oates' latest pronouncement is that "Mussina will start one of the first five games after we get home." The club will be back here Friday to face the Red Sox.
Mussina, sidelined by a bad back, hasn't been the same pitcher since the brawl here with Seattle on June 6. The club and Mussina, probably because they're embarrassed, deny that Mike was hurt in the fight.
This much appears clear to me: if you or I had been on the bottom of that pile of battling 200-pound Orioles and Mariners, as Mussina was, we'd have a bad back or worse.
If Mussina can't come back to be the stopper who keeps the Orioles from having a long losing streak the club has no chance.
The Orioles still need a hitter who can scare somebody. None of their current batsmen can.
They probably need a starting pitcher. Tim Hulett is valuable in a utility role, but no one seems to think he's the right everyday third baseman.
The other reason I think the Orioles will come up short is their record in adding players for the stretch drive. It's not good.
Last year, the Orioles were in first or second place for 143 days until Sept. 19. They lacked hitting, but what they added was pitcher Craig Lefferts. They finished third, seven games behind Toronto.
The year before that, they needed pitching, but they picked up Keith Moreland. They finished sixth, 24 games back.
Toronto has a history of acquiring players to help with the stretch drive. Last year it was David Cone. The Jays won. The year before it was Tom Candiotti. Again, the Jays won.
The Yankees and the Red Sox have also shown a greater propensity to take on needed players for the stretch.
That's what's likely to decide the AL East -- which club makes the right personnel move now. Baseball's deadline for trading without obtaining waivers is midnight Saturday.